Weekly

Kinzen's Weekly Wrap - November 19, 2021

How do we “solve” a problem like disinformation? That’s a big question, and one that the Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder set out to tackle months ago. They produced their final report this week, which can be read in full here.

First of all they state that, well, there is no simplistic fix for a problem like this. Instead, they recognise disinformation is a symptom of other challenges, like complex structural and societal issues. Nevertheless, “superspreaders” are allowed to flourish online, and business models can contribute to the coarsening of public debate.

So the Commission devised 15 recommendations, broken into three broad areas:

  • Increasing transparency
  • Building trust
  • Reducing harms

There’s a lot of solid, reasonable points in here, which you can check out in the full report, although some will have qualms about recommendations around Section 230, since they are likely to be squashed, in the US at least, by the First Amendment. 

For a broad overview, I would also recommend Joshua Benton’s summary. Writing for the Nieman Lab, he also includes some of his own perspective on the solutions outlined within the report too. 

For Your Headphones This Weekend

The BBC recently released a podcast called The Denial Files, focusing on climate change disinformation. Four episodes have been released so far, with more to come. Check it out here.

Editor’s Pick: Book Slot

Many of the books we’ve recommended in recent weeks have featured deep analysis of issues related to the information environment. Few have been as narrative-driven as Peter Pomerantsev's This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality

He identifies that much of our modern struggle is information abundance. As he writes near the start, “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful, but it’s also given them new ways to crush and silence dissent. More information was supposed to mean a more informed debate, but we seem less capable of deliberation than ever. More information was supposed to mean mutual understanding across borders, but it has also made possible new and more subtle forms of conflict and subversion.”

Pomerantsev travels to meet various protagonists in the story of disinformation and authoritarianism, including the recent winner of the Nobel Prize, Maria Ressa. He intertwines storytelling with observations of online propaganda, while reflecting on his own family’s struggles back in the USSR. Therefore it’s both deeply personal and wide-eyed to the world in its look at modern information operations. And it’s well worth your time.

Recommended Articles: From the Kinzen Slack channels this week

Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The Threat of Conspiratorial COVID-Sceptic Extremism

Some excellent analysis here focusing on the New Zealand and Australian anti-lockdown movements. Elise Thomas argues that, when it comes to such movements, simplistic labelling like the “far-right” doesn’t help us understand what’s happening. There may be radical activists involved, there may be elements of the far-right involved, but there is a broader trend toward extremist thinking which isn’t always defined simply by political positions. 

Scientific American. The Denialist Playbook

Whether it’s vaccines, evolution or climate change, misinformed science denialists follow a common playbook. This piece goes into detail on how each stage unfolds, from attempts to discredit the scientific evidence to disingenuous appeals for personal freedom. 

The Washington Post. France admits it spreads disinformation. Other democracies should also own up.

This is an area where I’d love to see more research. We’re all familiar with disinformation stories about Russia, Iran and China, but what about Western countries and liberal democracies? As The Post recently reflected, France owned up to a disinformation campaign it was running in the Central African Republic. We don’t know as much about other countries and their information influence operations.

Kinzen. The Lessons from Ireland's Vaccine Rollout

Mark wrote about our work with the Department of Health here in Ireland during the vaccine rollout. Stung by false disinformation campaigns about the HPV vaccine a few years ago, the Department did not want to get caught behind the latest conspiracy thinking about COVID vaccines. We helped them understand the concerns that were being raised, which allowed them to focus on promoting factual information that addressed key issues at the right moments. It could offer lessons for other countries who are trying to stifle the spread of misinformation.